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Here are answers to some questions that I am frequently posed in the Comments or through e-mail. Most relate to why I feel confident debunking stories about the size of dead rattlesnakes. Are you doing a class assignment that requires you to interview a wildlife biologist? Start here.

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If you weren’t there, how do you know for a fact that a rattlesnake wasn’t seven feet long (or eight feet, or nine feet)?

I don’t know that for a fact. I also don’t know for a fact that there aren’t any nine feet tall human beings around, but since this would be inconsistent with everything we know about human beings, it can be safely ruled out. Considering most of the rattlesnakes in the pictures I highlight are posed to make them appear larger than they really are, I have no hesitation stating that although these rattlesnakes may be large, they are not world-record holders and are often well short of their claimed length. Six and seven-foot rattlesnakes are out there, but they are extremely rare. I can probably count on one hand the number of eight-foot rattlesnakes ever documented.

Being from New York and all, how many rattlesnakes have you ever seen anyway?

Although I am from New York (which has Timber Rattlesnakesand Massasauga Rattlesnakes, by the way), I have lived in Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida since 2004 and have spent many, many hours working and recreating in rattlesnake habitat. I have seen perhaps 150 or so live rattlesnakes (this includes live animals I have found and animals captured because of my research projects). I would estimate that I have seen roughly equal numbers of Timber Rattlesnakes, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, and Pygmy Rattlesnakes. Counting dead animals, such as museum specimens, I have seen hundreds more.

Just because you haven’t seen something before doesn’t mean it can’t happen and by the way, being from New York and all, how many rattlesnakes have you ever seen anyway?

You are absolutely correct. When I say rattlesnakes don’t get nine feet long, I am basing that statement on the fact that every rattlesnake that has been reliably measured doesn’t come close to that length. I’m not only talking about animals I’ve seen myself, I’m talking about all animals anyone’s seen. As far as seven foot or eight-foot rattlesnakes, as Carl Saganonce said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

How do you know they (the people holding rattlesnakes in the pictures) are trying to make the snake look larger? Maybe they just don’t want to be close to the snake.

I don’t know why they are holding the rattlesnake close to the camera. But, whatever their motivation, the effect is the same: a rattlesnake that appears larger than it really is.

If you don’t know for a fact how long a snake was, then saying it wasn’t nine feet long is just as baseless as saying it was nine feet long. Neither statement is based on the measurements so by criticizing people you are being a hypocrite.

I know this isn’t really a question but I’ll answer it anyway. Although we may not have facts and measurements about any specific snake, we do have facts and measurements on hundreds of thousands of other snakes. Saying that a rattlesnake IS NOT nine feet long is consistent with everything we know about the world and saying a rattlesnake IS nine feet long is inconsistent with everything we know about the world. Which side are you on? Most of the time, this argument is beside the point because the snakes in most pictures that are sent around don’t look unusually large at all. A similar rationale can be used for many snakes that are claimed to be seven or eight feet long. Sure, it’s possible. But it’s extremely unlikely and the snakes in most of the pictures don’t even look anywhere close to that size.

Things were different in the past, just because there aren’t giant rattlesnakes around today doesn’t mean they didn’t exist once.

It is likely true that there are less rattlesnakes around today and rattlesnakes used to have a greater chance of living a long life and growing very large. However, there is still no compelling evidence that a rattlesnake’s maximum size used to be larger than the big ones we see today. There are thousands of rattlesnakes in museums around the country collected from the last century and there are no surprises. Also, see below.

There are lots of wild and unexplored areas where rattlesnakes get bigger than any ever you’ve ever seen.

I think it is a myth that there are pristine and untouched areas out there but in any case I don’t think it really matters. It is well-known that animals in captivity grow faster and get larger than animals in the wild. It’s a stress-free life with guaranteed food. Despite rattlesnakes being held in captivity for many years, they just don’t get monstrously large. Just like humans have physiological and genetic constraints on how we appear and how big we can get, so do rattlesnakes.

All you so-called experts won’t listen to me because you think I’m some dumb backwoods.

Stop. I don’t expect you to take my word for anything just because I have a Ph.D. On the other hand, if I disagree with you it is not because you don’t have one. I will evaluate what you say based on your arguments not your education.

Please discuss ______ (some strangely specific topic).

Sorry, I will not complete your homework assignment. If you have some questions, I will assist you in finding the answer. Please also view this open letter to science students and teachers.

I saw something incredible. Why don’t you believe me?

Eyewitness testimony and memory are notoriously unreliable. Nothing personal. An amusing and relevant example: many people are convinced Sinbad was in a genie movie called Shazaam but it doesn’t actually exist.

I found a snake skin can you tell me what kind of snake it is from?

If I have a shed snake skin in my hand and know where it came from, I can go through a process of elimination to try to figure out the species by doing things like counting specific kinds of scales. Sometimes it is easy to figure out, like when a snake has a very distinct morphological feature (the upturned snout of a Hognose snake, for example) and sometimes it is very difficult and I can only narrow it down to a family of snakes. For a great review of how to identify snake sheds, check out this three part series by Andrew Durso (III, and III).

How long does this animal live? How many babies do they have, etc?

Confession: I don’t generally have these kinds of facts memorized for all animals. In any case, questions about facts are good questions for you to type into your internet search-engine of choice. Then, you can let me know if you have follow-ups.

You said that Cottonmouths don’t chase people (or fill in your statement of choice) but I saw it once with my own eyes. Who are you to say otherwise?

This is a good point. I can never know the specifics of every wild encounter. The great outdoors is a fascinating and generally unpredictable place. Many, many things happen that defy description every day and that’s what makes it so interesting. I don’t claim to know everything, but I make generalizations based on the known biology of various animals. In many cases, I think normal behavior is misinterpreted as aggressive or dangerous and I explain why in my various posts.

I kill rattlesnakes because they are dangerous. Who are you to criticize me for protecting my family?

I am not criticizing anybody for doing their best to protect their family and home. However, the vast majority of venomous snake bites happen when people try to handle, harass, or kill these animals. I think that a safer long-term solution to sharing land with wild animals is to take appropriate precautions, which include educating children about potentially dangerous animals, training pets to avoid snakes, and removing snake hiding spots around your house. Killing individual snakes in your yard is a dangerous behavior that does not address the big picture regarding why snakes are there in the first place.

Is this photo real?

Yes. But, click herefor a discussion of the question that I think you should be asking.

I found a baby animal, how should I help?

If you found a baby bird, step one is to consult this handy flowchart comic. Found a baby mammal? Check out this site to determine whether it needs help. Finally, if this information doesn’t answer your question, you can find contact information for a licensed wildlife rehabilitator near you here.

I have a question about my pet _____…

I am a wildlife ecologist, which means that I study populations of wild animals. There are lots of care sheets and organizations online that can probably help you better than I can. If you feel that your pet is suffering, please consult a veterinarian as soon as possible.